Why civil society is essential to levelling up

Without civil society, levelling up won’t succeed. Decades of attempts to tackle the UK’s entrenched regional inequalities have shown that the charities, community groups and volunteers that are at civil society’s core can make the difference between successful, sustained local regeneration and flash in the pan spending with few long-term benefits.

From providing unparalleled insights into community issues at the planning and design stage of schemes, through to their ability to maintain the trust and buy-in of residents, civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in every stage of levelling up.

Civil society also has unique strengths to contribute to each of the government’s levelling up objectives. It directly adds to economic growth, employing over 900,000 people and disproportionately providing opportunities to those furthest from the labour market, such as young and disabled people. It is a fundamental component of the public services people rely on, as the most substantial supplier of NHS-commissioned mental health support, the highest quality provider of social care services, a key component of the social prescribing model that is taking pressure off health services and improving people’s wellbeing, and an effective contributor to reducing reoffending rates.

Participation in civil society is also closely linked to increased levels of social capital, neighbourliness and trust, which themselves improve people’s health and wellbeing. And when communities are given the resources to meaningfully influence their local area, they often invest in places and spaces that build and sustain civil and community life, growing people’s sense of pride in the place they live.

The importance of civil society to the realisation of levelling up is clearly recognised by people in those areas of the country earmarked for investment. New polling by YouGov for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society reveals that 27% of levelling up priority area residents want community groups and local charities to be in charge of deciding how levelling up funds should be spent. This far outstrips the 10% who think national government should be in charge.

Yet despite the essential nature of civil society’s role in the government’s levelling up agenda, its presence is noticeably lacking in the action government has taken so far. 95% of the £171.5billion proposed spending on levelling up to date is committed to physical infrastructure such as rail, road, and broadband investments. Only a fraction makes a nod towards social infrastructure such as cultural assets, and civil society itself is hardly mentioned at all.

This oversight creates a substantial risk to the success of the government’s flagship policy, particularly because the strong local civil society needed for levelling up to succeed is often lacking in those areas which need it the most. That was powerfully evident during the pandemic when the most deprived parts of the country had twice the demand for help from NHS volunteer respondents but 3.7 times fewer volunteers, leading to many requests for support going unmet. Residents in levelling up priority areas clearly recognise this gap, with 42% of those polled believing local cultural facilities are worse than other parts of the UK.

To increase the likelihood of levelling up making a real difference to people’s lives, government should enable civil society to better contribute to each stage of the process. To ensure levelling up has a lasting legacy, empowering local neighbourhoods and organisations to drive the agenda forward is essential. To create the conditions in which communities can thrive, social infrastructure needs direct investment. And government should act to strengthen civil society in the places that need it most, intervening to reverse the cycle of decline.

By enabling, empowering, incubating and strengthening civil society in these ways, government will be able to maximise its chances of changing lives for the better through levelling up.